Farmworkers tell of slave-master relationship with farmers after 25 years of democracy

Farmworkers attending a speak-out on evictions and working conditions on farms on May Day in Robertson. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Farmworkers and their organisations organised a speak-out to highlight the new wave of evictions that is said to be linked to calls for expropriation of land without compensation.

As May Day rallies around the country turned into party political platforms with trade union leaders dominating the proceedings, farmworkers in the Boland region of the Western Cape took the mic in a speak-out to highlight the working and living conditions on farms after 25 years of democracy. The event organised by the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) and Mawubuye Land Rights Movement was held in the farming town of Robertson.

Farmworkers and labour tenants lined up inside the civic centre as they wanted to talk about their individual experiences of poor working and living conditions and being evicted from farms.

61-year-old Pierre Mathys worked for the same farmer for 25 years and was evicted in late 2017. “After my wife died, I was sick and took sometime to go stay at my daughter’s place. When I felt better I went back to the farm. A week after returning to work, I was told by the farmer that they want to paint the house so I must take out my belongings. They asked me to place them outside even though there were about 10 other houses that were vacant. I did take out my clothes and furniture and in the evening the farmer and his son made a huge fire outside the house and they set my clothes on fire. I was only left with the clothes that I was wearing,” he said.

According to Mathys, he called the police so that he could lay charges against the farmer. Instead, according to the 61-year-old, the police went to the farmer to hear his side of the story first. “The other three co-workers were also kicked out of their houses,” he said.

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“I was scared to stop them from burning my clothes as the farmer is known for beating up workers,” he explained. According to Mathys, he had an agreement with the farmer to set aside part of his wages as savings. “When they evicted me I knew that I was not going to get my full R7,000; he was gonna make sure that he reminds me of every favour that he has done for me and I was gonna leave with empty hands,” said Mathys.

40- year-old mother of four, Francina Orange, told the gathering that she was evicted after she was accused of smuggling fruit out of the farm but was not given a chance to defend herself and tell her side of the story.

“The farmer is known for sowing divisions amongst the workers and cause the farmworkers to fight one another. He spoke to everyone about what he thought had happened except with me,” she said. Orange told the crowd of about 80 farmworkers that the farmer brought in a consultant that wanted her to sign some papers. “I refused to sign them because I was not going to sign an admission of guilt,” said Orange.

Another farmworker, Hendrick January said that he was evicted from the farm he worked pn for nine years after the farmer doubted the authenticity of a sick certificate that he provided them with.

Farmworkers and their organisations have repeatedly called for a moratorium on farm evictions. In March, they marched to Parliament to hand over a memorandum. When he was still the deputy president in 2014, Cyril Ramaphosa promised a moratorium. That promised is yet to be fulfilled.

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Mathys stays at his daughter’s place in McGregor, a small village near Robertson, but is not sure where he will go when she returns.

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